Average Speed versus Instantaneous Speed

Since a moving object often changes its speed during its motion, it is common to distinguish between the average speed and the instantaneous speed. The distinction is as follows.

·         Instantaneous Speed – the speed at any given instant in time.

·         Average Speed – the average of all instantaneous speeds; found simply by a distance/time ratio.

You might think of the instantaneous speed as the speed that the speedometer reads at any given instant in time and the average speed as the average of all the speedometer readings during the course of the trip. Since the task of averaging speedometer readings would be quite complicated (and maybe even dangerous), the average speed is more commonly calculated as the distance/time ratio.

Moving objects don’t always travel with erratic and changing speeds. Occasionally, an object will move at a steady rate with a constant speed. That is, the object will cover the same distance every regular interval of time. For instance, a cross-country runner might be running with a constant speed of 6 m/s in a straight line for several minutes. If her speed is constant, then the distance traveled every second is the same. The runner would cover a distance of 6 meters every second. If we could measure her position (distance from an arbitrary starting point) each second, then we would note that the position would be changing by 6 meters each second. This would be in stark contrast to an object that is changing its speed. An object with a changing speed would be moving a different distance each second. The data tables below depict objects with constant and changing speed.


Now let’s consider the motion of that physics teacher again. The physics teacher walks 4 meters East, 2 meters South, 4 meters West, and finally 2 meters North. The entire motion lasted for 24 seconds. Determine the average speed and the average velocity.


The physics teacher walked a distance of 12 meters in 24 seconds; thus, her average speed was 0.50 m/s. However, since her displacement is 0 meters, her average velocity is 0 m/s. Remember that thedisplacement refers to the change in position and the velocity is based upon this position change. In this case of the teacher’s motion, there is a position change of 0 meters and thus an average velocity of 0 m/s.

Here is another example similar to what was seen before in the discussion of distance and displacement. The diagram below shows the position of a cross-country skier at various times. At each of the indicated times, the skier turns around and reverses the direction of travel. In other words, the skier moves from A to B to C to D.

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